Does Thor Bring the hammer down or drop it?
The summer movie season kicks off with a thunderous boom thanks to Marvel Studio’s THOR. Kenneth Branagh, an unlikely choice of director for a summer blockbuster/comic movie, has crafted a fast-paced ride through a comic book world that kept me entertained from the first to final frame. Credit has to go to Kenneth Branagh and the script for conveying a lot of THOR/MARVEL lore without coddling the audience or forcing you to sit through an hour of exposition to explain the difference between a Heimdal and a Heimlich. A tight running time (under two hours), superb casting choices, and dazzling set/costume design propel THOR to its rightful place among MARVEL’s top tier movies.
The film kicks off with a tour of Asgard (the world which Thor and his kin hail from) and its residents. We are introduced to Odin (played with snarling confidence by Sir Anthony Hopkins) and how he has kept evil forces at bay and watched over the realms from atop Asgard. It is explained what Asgard is and where it exists in relation to Midgard (Earth for you non-asgardian folk) and how our histories intertwine. The writers do a tidy job here of culling a single origin story for Thor and Asgard from several different comic myths spanning Marvel’s prime and Ultimate universes. Basically, enough information is given for the proceedings to make sense to a new audience, but enough easter eggs and bread crumbs are given for Thor fans to be kept satisfied. There are also plenty of hidden gems working to connect THOR to the larger Marvel Cinema Universe, but thankfully they aren’t as overt as they were in Iron Man 2. Kudos. We see how Thor (in a breakout performance from Chris Hemsworth aka the father of one Captain James Tiberius Kirk) has come to be Odin’s heir, and his younger brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is next in line. A group of Frost giants, ancient enemies of Odin, breach the walls of Asgard and set the wheels in motion for Thor’s banishment to Earth. Thor immediately sets out for the home of the frost giants to get answers and knock heads. Disobeying Odin’s direct commands, Thor brings his world to the brink of war and Odin strips Thor of his powers and casts him down to Earth where he must learn humility before he can ascend to his rightful place as heir to the throne. From here, Thor meets Jane Foster and Erik Selvig (Natalie Portman and Stellan Skarsgard doing their best with some pretty plain roles), astrophysicists who are exploring the connection between Earth and Asgard. It is at this point that the film takes on the characteristics of a fish out of water story and much of the movie’s laughs are generated. All the while, we keep flipping back and forth to see what is occurring in Asgard during Thor’s absence. The movie has a lighthearted sense of humor here and much of it works because Chris Hemsworth’s comic timing is impeccable. Every time I felt that the film was beginning to meander or get too funny for its own good, it would switch back to the turmoil in Asgard. The final act of the film is all about Thor rising up from his banishment and becoming the hero he is meant to be and features some big action set-pieces and effects work. It’s a classic tale, but one that is shown through the lens of a new world and backed by heartfelt dramatic turns by the leads.
Thor, Sif, Odin, Loki, Padme, and Heimlich
Chris Hemsworth is given a lot of screen-time and rightly so. He does a lot to humanize Thor, who has been a rather one-note character in the world of comics. He truly looks the part, and his rigorous training pays off during the fight sequences. Early in the film, when Thor goes to confront the frost giant’s King Laufey (Colm Feore sporting some great practical effects make-up), we are given the chance to see Thor fight like a god. The action choreography had my eyes glued to the screen. Chris Hemsworth, with the aid of some top notch effects work, pulls off iconic moves taken straight from the comic’s playbook and it translates extraordinarily well to the screen. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is also a standout performance. In lesser hands, Loki’s role could have fallen into scenery chewing and mustache twirling, but Hiddleston imbues his Loki with just the right amount of outward conniving and inner menace. Anthony Hopkins was also a perfect choice for Odin. He reigns in his performance here, which could easily have been over the top, and balances Odin’s bellowing with just as much being expressed in silence or with the gaze of his one eye. These three form the core and heart of THOR and the film works best when they are on screen and playing off of each other. Thor’s comic book cohorts The Warrior’s Three and Sif (Ray Stevenson, Tadanobu Asano, Josh Dallas, and Jaimie Alexander) are also represented, but just don’t have that much to do. I feel like they were written in for completion’s sake. They do look the part and have some interesting action moments, though. The best small roles go to Idris Elba as Heimdal (Asgard’s gatekeeper and sentry) and Clark Gregg (reprising his role as Agent Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D. from the Iron Man movies). Clark Gregg has fun with Agent Coulson and gets some great lines and funny moments. Heimdal however, is seriously imposing as played by Idris Elba. He looks and sounds exactly how I would have imagined and his brief but important role is bolstered by one of the film’s best costumes.
Most extravagant bathroom ever.
I hope the production crew gets some recognition for THOR because the set and costume design of Asgard is truly a spectacle. The comic book look of each of the characters is faithfully re-imagined and given an updated sheen while seeming functional and realistic for the characters that wear them. The set designs are grand and there is a massive amount of detail to take in. Kenneth Branagh and his creative team did an amazing job of creating this other-worldly place, and it really does look fit for gods. The scenery becomes a bit more humdrum during the sequences set on Earth, but that’s mostly because they take place in a small town, and are juxtaposed between the grandeur of scenes from Asgard. If THOR does well I hope to see a bigger budget for the sequel, which can be spent to showcase more time in Asgard.
Thor has a lot going for it, but perhaps its greatest strength is the titular character’s relatively low profile in the minds of the mass market audience. Like Iron Man before it, THOR has a great opportunity to introduce itself to audiences who have little to no expectation for what the character could bring. THOR is not as widely recognized as Spider man, Hulk, or Wolverine. The director, Kenneth Branagh, has no giant action movies in his credits, and the leads are relative unknowns. Kenneth Branagh and company, however, deftly maneuver what could have been a rehash of an all-too-familiar tale into something more by giving its main characters a Shakespearean family drama as a backdrop for all of the heroics and action to play out against. If audiences give THOR a chance I think they will be happily surprised by how well it all comes together.
Recommendati0n: ‘Tis 0n. Go check it out for a verily good time.
The more you know: Kenneth Branagh is actually pronounced Kenneth Branner (like Bruce Banner)
Tom Hiddleston (Loki) was originally auditioned and considered for the role of Thor. He also worked with Kenneth Branagh on the BBC’s Wallander.
Thor was relegated to the 9th ring of development hell for nearly 20 Years with everyone from Sam Raimi and David Goyer to Matthew Vaughn and D.J. Caruso attached to the project at one point or another.
Stay for an extra scene at the end of the credits. It’s worth it.